At some point during the last few years–I think quite likely it was during the making of Charlie’s Angels, if not earlier–Bill Murray decided it was time for him to put away his trademarked schtick for awhile and do some actual acting. Oh, he’d tried doing the dramatic stuff early in his career, of course, most notably with 1984′s The Razor’s Edge, but audiences weren’t ready to see him be serious at that point.
Over the last few years, though, he’s given increasingly complex performances in some quality films, and movie-goers seem more willing to accept a more mature Murray; he even earned an Oscar nod for his work in the knockout Lost In Translation. And as the title character in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray has found what might be his most complex character yet.
Much like Bob Harris, the movie star Murray played in Translation, Steve Zissou feels much like one of his old comedic parts but viewed at an angle. If Harris showed the quiet, bitter core which might hide behind Murray’s blustery funnyman facade, then Zissou plays like a more self-aware version of Murray’s classic screwballs, one who refuses to let anyone see the pain hiding just below the surface. Steve Zissou is all artifice, an image constructed to keep the world from seeing the insecure, weak man Zissou himself can’t even tolerate. He can’t even open up to the man who may or may not be his son because, he says with almost no emotion at all, he might start to cry.
Steve desperately wants to allow himself to fully embrace the bond he feels with his might-be-son Ned (Owen Wilson), but he seems to have forgotten how (if he ever knew). That bond, the bonds that develop between family members both real and adopted, powers The Life Aquatic: the bonds between Steve and his late partner Esteban (Steve’s desire for revenge on the beast who ate Esteban fuels what there is of a plot); the bonds Steve and Ned share, bonds that existed long before the two men ever met; the bonds between Steve and the crew members of Team Zissou (hilariously represented by Willem Dafoe, savoring the opportunity to channel his intensity into comedy); even the bonds between Steve and his college-roommate-turned-nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum in full I’m-so-much-smarter-than-you mode). There’s very much a sense in this movie that nothing and no one is completely new in Steve Zissou’s life; paths intertwine early though those connections don’t become obvious until late.
|The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)|
Director Anderson (who previously directed Murray in both The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore) melds the comedic and the tragic together in an interesting and entertaining fashion–his ability to do so reminds me quite a bit of the books of John Irving, but where Irving flavors his happenings with the grotesque, Anderson seems content to spice his stories with the bizarre and the surreal. The real shares stage time with the patently unreal: when characters walk through a large cutaway of Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte, Anderson doesn’t even try to mask the fact that they’re on a set on a soundstage. Anderson knows that his story is so bizarre that stunts such as that one won’t take his audience out of the moment; they actually add to the overall mood of the film.
I usually have no idea just where I’m headed while on a Wes Anderson trip, and that applies double to The Life Aquatic. I expected a heavy dose of tragedy, and I got it, though not from the direction I was anticipating. I was expecting laughs and got plenty of those, and I was expecting pathos and got plenty of that, too. Anderson is one of those directors for whom “watching” feels like an insufficient verb to use in conjunction with his films–as art-housey bullshit thought it might sound, “experiencing” feels closer to the truth for me.